I am reading Michael Pollan's latest book, THE OMNIVORE'S DILEMMA. I found his previous book, THE BOTANY OF DESIRE, utterly charming. In that one, he traced the history of humankind's interactions with four plants: tulips, potatoes, apples, and marijuana. He does the same in DILEMMA for various kinds of foodstuffs: corn, organic produce, hunted game. This time, however, he is not interested in being charming.
I am only part way through the first section, on corn, and already I am half-resolved to never eat feedlot beef again. The book is packed with detail, interesting and disgusting and problematic, and time and time again I realize how ignorant I am about the food I eat, the agriculture that grows it, and the people who made that possible. I never, for instance, as much as heard of Fritz Haber, but without him I probably wouldn't exist. Neither would about 2/5 of the world's population.
In 1909 Haber discovered the process by which nitrogen from the air can be "fixed" into molecules usable by human beings. Before that, all the available nitrogen on the surface of the Earth had been "fixed" by bacteria growing on the roots of legumes or by the odd lightning strike. It wasn't enough fixed nitrogen to create enough fertilizer to cultivate enough food. Haber received the Nobel Prize in 1920 for his process.
The reason I never heard of him was that the rest of his history is checkered (creating synthetic nitrate for German explosives and poison gases in World War I). But without his process, the human population would have hit mass starvation long before now. Pollan identifies this as "a mixed blessing," and explores the pluses and minuses of our ability to increase "commodity corn" yield to nearly 200 bushels per acre. And this is only one of the fascinating byways of this exhaustively researched, well-written, and entertaining book.